Can aggressive dogs be rehabilitated with 'clicker' training?

In the last twenty years there have been huge advances in animal training - equal to those in human education, medicine and computer technology - and so the short answer is that OF COURSE aggressive dogs of any breed CAN be - and indeed SHOULD be - rehabilitated using up-to-date training techniques. 

Command based traditional training of all species, including humans, has been around for centuries as correction and force can undoubtedly change behaviour. And it can certainly make for high rating half hour dog training TV shows with their seemingly miraculous quick-fix results! The before and after shots, skilfully edited, have audiences spellbound and clamouring for more.

In reality these shows are more about entertainment and TV ratings than about serious training.  And many of the methods seen are by far from original and are simply a re-hash of long discredited dogma and myth that refuse to die  - such as 'your-chihuahua-is-a-wolf-and-so-must-be- treated- just-like-a-wolf'.  They often have a liberal smattering of euphemisms to describe the way we did things in the 60s, 70s and 80s when we knew of no alternatives to intimidation (do-it-or-else!) and force-based training.

The Pit Bull Terrier is a breed commonly thought to be so aggressive towards other dogs and humans that it is one of four breeds (along with the lesser known Japanese Tosa Inu, Filo Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino) that is totally banned in Australia and many other countries.

Alexa Capra- below - is a positive reinforcement trainer who founded the Associazione Culturale Gentle Team in Alessandria in Northern Italy in 2000. She has been working for several years with ex-fighting Pit Bulls which have been rescued from illegal East European fighting rings and sent to her for rehabilitation. To date she and her dedicated team of  trainers who understand its true function and use a clicker correctly have successfully been able to re-home 14 of these dogs into Italian homes! 



Alexa was the first Italian trainer to qualify for Level 3 of the Competency Assessment  Program (CAP3) from Kay Laurence's internationally renowned UK clicker training establishment, Learning About Dogs. (Click here for an overview of LAD's clicker training and a video on 'shaping') and was a key-note speaker there at a 3 day clicker seminar in 2006.

Trainers from around the world, many from countries where Pit Bulls are banned, heard from Alexa with some amazement how rescued Pit Bulls are re-rehabilitated, re-trained and re-homed.

The correction based training techniques still advocated by some die-hard traditionalists as well as some near cult popular TV personalities - techniques such as 'neck scruffs' or using an 'alpha roll'  (flipping a misbehaving dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat, to teach the dog that the trainer is the pack leader, or 'alpha' animal) - are NEVER used! 

Why not?  Firstly, there is an obvious absurdity in even thinking of 'flipping' or wrestling with an ex-fighting Pit Bull. Secondly, even a small dog subjected to this kind of violent and bullying physical treatment is highly unlikely a) to learn what the trainer thinks he or she is teaching the dog and, indeed, is much more likely to learn to fear and resent the trainer or b) have an on-going rewarding relationship based on trust and co-operation. And thirdly, and far more importantly, there are far more effective ways of being a true 'leader': so it is completely unnecessary to do so. 

For sensible thoughts on inspirational leadership when it comes to dog/human relationships, what our dogs need us to be and what leadership is and what it is most definitely is NOT click HERE > 'Effective Leadership - the way to a happy pack' . Or get hold of a copy of Dr Patricia McConnell's booklet 'How to be Leader of the Pack ...and Have Your Dog Love You for it!'

This booklet is based on the ways dogs communicate with each other and clarifies how to be a benevolent natural leader of our packs and how, in a peaceful and kind way, to avoid aggression related to fear or dominance. The ideas and exercises in this booklet are based on the way dogs really communicate with each other and not on some outdated and discredited myths.

Positive reinforcement methods are safe (an elderly person or a child can use them) as well as easy, enjoyable and highly motivating and effective in teaching new behaviours or modifying existing ones. Click HERE to read > What positive reinforcement training is and what it is NOT. A simple box clicker is used to firstly identify a desired  behaviour - such as a Pit Bull being calm instead of stressed around another dog or a person - which then gets reinforced with a pat, praise, toy or food.

The Italian trainers re-establish trust and then help the abused Pit Bull to learn behaviours that, with patience over a long period of time, will enable it to co-exist peacefully with humans and other dogs. To see the first stages of Alexa helping 'Betty', an extremely stressed rescued ex-fighting dog, click on this u-tube link > ">

Also of interest to people at the seminar was that commonly prescribed drugs like Valium or Prozac have never been needed with any of Alexa's rescued Pit Bulls.

She wrote in a recent e-mail :

"We have done 5 thesis with 2 Universities so we are able to demonstrate our work and our results. It's not just talking, it's all videotaped, written and proven. I have been working with pit bulls since 2003, and I am absolutely horrified by those who claim "you cannot rehabilitate a pit bull with methods based on positive training and relationship", since these dogs are first of all been ABUSED by people. For us rehabilitation does not mean that someone will be able to live with them without any problem, or that they will "socialize" with other dogs. The first aim of rehabilitation is the welfare of the dog, it is to give to these dogs tools to interact in a positive manner with people, to learn the skills that a puppy learns in a new family, a family they never had in their lives. They might look as strong, confident and even dangerous, but I can tell you they are deeply hurt by the way they had to survive, and fight, and because of mistreatment. It took us one year and a half before one of the ex-fighting pits could trust us enough to lie down when he was on a leash. He would stand and wait for something bad to happen. We have re-homed 14 pit bulls, some of them are good family dogs, as good as many other dogs, some of them require more responsibility, they might be more difficult to live with, but as a dog trainer I see many dogs that are as difficult or even worse, even if they are of different breeds, or crossbreeds, and have been adopted as puppies. If only people could see behind their eyes, none could even think to harm them again."

gino-internet-2 Bimbo  Sonny-coccole-3-sett-04


1. 'Gino' - a fighting champion Pit Bull
2. 'Bimbo' - a  Pit Bull rescued from the fighting ring
3. Alexa, clicker in hand, with Pit bull 'Sonny' - who is working hard to get cuddled!

Alexa has kindly offered to send further details of her work and on-going research, including video clips and more photographs, and they will be posted here shortly. So please come back soon!

Meanwhile check the following website (in Italian) http://www.gentleteam.it/ and further video clips of Associazione Culturale Gentle Team's training at  . Click on the bottom right hand link (Mostra tutto) to see all 24 training clips.


In the USA, Canada, the UK, other parts of Europe and in Australasia there are many trainers who successfully re-rehabilitate aggressive dogs using modern non-force-based techniques similar to those that are employed by Alexa Capra and her Italian team.

For further information on some excellent books on aggression click on the  Dogwise links below for their summary as well as to see the contents and read some sample pages.

Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention and Behavior Modification
Brenda Aloff

Dogwise Publishing 2002

This book has become the "bible" for identifying, understanding, & resolving aggression problems in dogs. Contains detailed training protocols to use in specific types of aggression situations & how to manage the aggressive dog for his safety & that of the community.

To see contents and read sample pages click here >  Dogwise1

Scaredy Dog! Understanding & Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog
Alli Brown 
Tanacia Press 2004

This book helps the dedicated dog owner to understand what a reactive dog is doing, why he's doing it, & how to help him to change it for the better. Learn how to make the most of your reactive dog, & begin your trek to a new & wonderful life with your pal! All positive methods.



To see contents and read sample pages click here > Dogwise1

Light to Shadow
 Bringing Light to Shadow: a dog trainer's diary - from aggressive rescue dog to Canine Good Citizen
Pamela Dennison

Dogwise Publishing 2004

Meet Shadow, a  fearful, aggressive, second-hand Border Collie. He lashed out at people without warning & avoided human touch. Meet Pam, a professional dog trainer with several successful dog adoptions behind her when she met Shadow. Follow their journey—in this warts-and-all diary of their lives over 18 months. Every owner or trainer who has ever lived or worked with an aggressive dog will gain new insights from Shadow.
 To see contents and read sample pages click here > Dogwise1

How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong: a road-map for rehabilitating aggressive dogs
Pamela Dennison

Alpine Publications 2005

 A road-map for rehabilitating any dog that has aggressive tendencies, whether it is a puppy that shows aggression when you remove the food bowl, a dog-aggressive dog that you are afraid to walk in the park, or a dog that is aggressive towards family & friends.
 To see contents and read sample pages click here >Dogwise1



Jean Donaldson

Kinship Communications 2004

A practical guide to the treatment of dog-dog aggression, this down-to-earth manual will teach you how to use behavior modification to retrain a dog that bullies other dogs, or becomes fearful when approached by other dogs. 

To see contents and read sample pages click  here> Dogwise1


Click To Calm: healing the aggressive dog
Emma Parsons

Sunshine Books 2004
When Emma Parsons, canine trainer and behavior consultant, discovered that Ben, her own prized golden retriever, was aggressive toward other dogs and that traditional remedies took his reactivity to nightmarish levels, she turned to clicker training. In the process, Emma developed innovative and highly effective strategies to calm, alter, and re-shape Ben's aggressive displays. Her work has since helped many clients successfully reduce and even erase their dogs' reactivity to both dogs and humans. More than 40 exercises in an easy-to-follow training recipe format, teaching how to: *Desensitize your dog to approaching stranger dogs *Allow you to grab your dog's collar without him snapping *Have your dog perform canine calming signals, instead of aggressive displays, on cue *Have your dog turn and give you eye contact whenever another dog approaches, or you tighten on the leash *Use your own body language when under stress as a cue for your dog to remain calm *And many more creative and effective uses of managing behavior through clicker training.